How desirable is free education?

One of the more popular campaign promises during the just concluded elections concerned education. If you vote for me as your governor I will make sure I provide free education for all. Although the promise of free education is a popular one, should we really want free education?

In order to properly understand the problem it is useful to define what education really is and how it matters for development. Education really is just an investment in learning. People invest time and money in learning some particular skills with those skills increasing their productivity in the future. As a society the goal is to invest as much time, money and effort in education with the knowledge that more investment will increase productivity in the future.

There are two important things that come out of this simple definition. The first is that the true measure of the level of education is not how many people are in school or attended some school but how much they learned while in school. The skills or knowledge is what counts rather than the certificate. Measuring literacy by how many people attended primary school or secondary school doesn’t paint a true picture of how literate a society is. The most common way of properly measuring this is by looking at scores from standardised tests, although i must point out that is not perfect either. Looking at WAEC pass rates for instance. The second issue is about how much money, time and effort SOCIETY spends on education. The key point here is SOCIETY. Society is not the government. Society is the government plus the people. In this context the best case scenario is for SOCIETY to spend as much money, time and effort on education to consistently increase the average level of literacy and the absolute number of highly skilled members of society.

Does free education help achieve this goal? Probably not. Most case studies that examine the introduction of free public education find mostly negative consequences on the overall quality of education although enrolment rates rise. The problem is that although free education increases access to education it reduces the overall investment in education by the society. The government spends more but people spend a lot less. The eventual outcome is that society is spending less on education and less is bad.

Another issue with free education is the manner in which it is administered. Usually in some form of government run public education system. In most cases this affects the level of effort put in by schools and teachers. Government run public education screws up the incentives. Teachers don’t get any extra benefit from being better teachers. Schools don’t get any extra benefit from being better schools. The goal is to do what they have to do ensure that the budgets are signed and their salaries are paid. They therefore don’t put in as much effort as they would if they were directly accountable to paying students.

The point of all this is that increasing the level of education requires a lot more thought than just “free education for all”. The recent high failure rates in WAEC and NECO suggest that although the government has spent more on education and tried (maybe not genuinely) to boost education has not had the desired results. Giving the poor the same access and opportunities is a big challenge but it can be solved without destroying the entire system.

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